Guide to Counseling Certifications & Licenses

Counselors, by nature of their profession, sit in a position of trust. Often, their clients come to them in a position of vulnerability. Certifications and licenses ensure that counselors are educated and trained to high professional standards, and able to meet their client’s vulnerability with an objective capability.

Each sub-discipline of counseling has its own certification and licensure systems. For many, state licensure is a requirement in order to practice, and that licensure comes with strict requirements around education and supervised work experience. Other counselors may seek out optional certification, which can exist in lieu of formal licensure. Still other counselors may seek out a combination of licenses and certifications to demonstrate their capability across multiple co-occurring disorders and therapeutic mediums.

Counseling certifications exist across a wide range of subjects: from finances, to forensics, to substance abuse, and practically everything in between. So, what kinds of counseling certifications and licenses are there? The short answer is: a whole lot.

To get a more detailed breakdown on what counseling certifications and licenses are out there, check out our guide below.

State Licensure for Counselors

Many counselors will need to be licensed by the state in which they choose to practice. Precise requirements will vary by specialty, and by each state’s licensing board for professional and school counselors.

State licenses can lead to the following professional titles:

  • Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)
  • Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC)
  • Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT)
  • Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC)
  • Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor of Mental Health (LPCC)
  • Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor (LCMHC)
  • Licensed Mental Health Practitioner (LMHP)

Applicants will need a master’s degree in counseling from a program accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). Each state also requires applicants to have completed between 1,000 and 3,000 hours of supervised work experience.

Once deemed eligible, applicants must pass a comprehensive examination on counseling practice. The examination will vary, again, by state and specialty. The most common examinations for state licensure are:

  • National Counselor Examination (NCE)
  • National Clinical Mental Health Counselor Examination (NCMHCE)
  • Examination of Clinical Counselor Practice (ECCP)
  • Certified Rehabilitation Counselor Examination (CRCE)

Most states will require counselors to complete a certain number of continuing education credits every one to two years in order to maintain their license.

National Certified Counselor (NCC)

The National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) is the premier certification body for the profession, and their National Certified Counselor (NCC) credential is a voluntary certification that shows the public and employers that a counselor has met the national standards of counseling and committed themselves to continuing education.

Eligibility requirements include a master’s degree or higher in counseling from a CACREP-accredited program. Once deemed eligible, applicants must pass either the National Counselor Examination (NCE), the National Clinical Mental Health Counselor Examination (NCMHCE). Those who earn the NCC designation will have to recertify every five years, and complete a regular amount of continuing education each year.

While its requirements do overlap with many state’s licensure requirements, the NCC designation does not grant state licensure; some states may, however, fast-track applicants who hold an NCC.

Those who hold the NCC designation are also eligible to apply for specialty certification as a Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor (CCMHC), a National Certified School Counselor (NCSC), or a Master Addictions Counselor (MAC).

Applicants will need to show graduate training and work experience in their specialty of choice, and then pass a specialized examination; in the case of the CCMHC designation, applicants will also need a professional endorsement. All specialized certifications run on the same five-year recertification cycle as the NCC, and have a continuing education requirement.

National Certified Addiction Counselor (NCAC)

The Association for Addiction Professionals (NAADAC) represents the interests of over 100,000 addiction counselors and educators. They offer voluntary certification as a National Certified Addiction Counselor (NCAC), which comes in two levels: NCAC I and NCAC II. Also available is the National Certified Adolescent Addictions Counselor (NCAAC) credential.

Applicants must hold a current credential or license as a substance use counselor, mental health counselor, or marriage and family therapist. They must also have 6,000-10,000 hours of supervised experience as a substance use counselor, and 270-450 contact hours of education in substance abuse disorders. Once deemed eligible, applicants must pass a qualifying exam.

Those who hold the NCAC and NCAAC designations will need to recertify every two years through the completion of 40 hours of continuing education.

Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA)

The Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) is a nonprofit organization that’s certified over 41,000 behavior analysts, and formed the basis for behavior analyst licensure laws in the United States. It offers the graduate-level Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) credential for independent practitioners who provide behavior analysis services.

While there are multiple eligibility pathways, the most common route includes applicants having earned a graduate degree from an accredited institution, and completed practical fieldwork that meets all of the BACB’s requirements. Once deemed eligible, applicants will need to pass a four-hour, 160-question exam. BCBA-holders will need to recertify every two years, during which they must complete 32 continuing education units (CEUs).

Those who hold both the BCBA credential and a doctoral degree from an accredited institution are eligible for the BCBA-Doctoral (BCBA-D) credential. There is no BCBA-D examination, but those who earn the credential will also need to recertify every two years.

Certified Rehabilitation Counselor (CRC)

The Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification (CRCC) is the world’s largest rehabilitation counseling organization, and is dedicated to improving the lives of those with disabilities by setting standards for the competent delivery of care by rehabilitation counselors. Its optional Certified Rehabilitation Counselor (CRC) designation is nationally accredited and internationally recognized.

Applicants must either be students in (or graduates of) a master’s degree program in rehabilitation counseling. If the program is not CACREP-accredited, strict coursework requirements must be met. Work experience, ranging from 600 hours of graduate-level internship to two years in the field, is also necessary. Once deemed eligible, applicants must pass a 3.5-hour, 175-question certification exam that covers 12 knowledge domains underlying rehabilitation counseling. Once earned, the CRC must be renewed every five years through the completion of continuing education.

Accredited Financial Counselor (AFC)

For over 30 years, the non-profit Association for Financial Counseling & Planning Education (AFCPE) has set standards for the field of financial counseling, coaching, and education. Their voluntary Accredited Financial Counselor (AFC) certification demonstrates that a financial counselor is competent and committed to the profession.

Applicants can meet the educational requirements through one of four different pathways, but a degree from an accredited institution, and the completion of relevant financial coursework, is enough. Applicants will also need 1,000 of verifiable financial counseling experience. Once deemed eligible, they’ll then need to pass a three-hour, 165-question exam on ten competency areas. Those who earn the AFC credential must renew every two years by completing at least 30 continuing education units.

Board Certification in Music Therapy (MT-BC)

The Certification Board for Music Therapists (CBMT) is the only certifying board for music therapy, and they’re committed to stringent testing and measurement standards. They’ve been fully accredited since 1986. Their Board Certification in Music Therapy (MT-BC) credential is designed to provide an objective standard for music therapists, one that underscores evidence-based therapeutic practice.

Applicants need to have completed an academic and clinical training program for music therapy that’s been accredited by the American Music Therapy Association. Once deemed eligible, applicants must then pass a 150-question multiple choice exam. Board-certified music therapists need to renew their certification every five years through the completion of 100 units of Continuing Music Therapy Education (CMTE).

Certified Forensic Counselor (CFC)

The National Association of Forensic Counselors (NAFC) has helped establish the profession of forensic counseling by becoming the first organization to develop standards, requirements, and an examination for a forensic counseling certification.

The NAFC’s optional Certified Forensic Counselor (CFC) designation is available at both the non-clinical and clinical level. Applicants may also choose to instead pursue a specialization credential, such as Certified Domestic Violence Counselor (CDVC).

For non-clinical certification, applicants will need a relevant bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution, an active state license (unless exempt), 180 hours of training specific to forensic counseling, and two years (4,000 hours) of supervised experience.

For the clinical certification, applicants will need a master’s degree from an accredited institution, an active state license (unless exempt), 270 hours of training specific to forensic counseling, and three years (6,000 hours) of supervised experience. Once deemed eligible, applicants must pass an examination in their specialty.

The NAFC allows credential holders to renew either annually or bi-annually, but they must complete at least 20 continuing education units every year.

Certified Genetic Counselor (CGC)

Founded in 1993, the American Board of Genetic Counseling (ABGC) is a non-profit organization that defines the professional standards of competence for the genetic counseling profession. Their Certified Genetic Counselor (CGC) designation is an internationally-recognized professional credential for genetic counselors. Currently, ABGC certification is required in half of all 50 states as part of the requirements to qualify for a license to practice, and practices in exempt states often require certification, too.

Applicants must hold a master’s degree in genetic counseling from a program accredited by the Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling (ACGC). Once deemed eligible, applicants will need to pass a 200-question, four-hour examination. The CGC designation is valid for five years, after which one will need to recertify through either continuing education or re-taking the examination.

Certified Biblical Counselor (CBC)

For nearly 40 years, the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC) has been certifying biblical counselors to ensure doctrinal integrity and promote excellence in biblical counseling. Their optional Certified Biblical Counselor (CBC) credential, which is the most thorough spiritual counselor certification, is split into three phases: learning, examination, and supervision. Specializations are available in addictions, reconciliation, and marriage.

Applicants will first need to complete a 30-hour training from ACBC-certified counselors. They will then observe 10 biblical counseling sessions, and read 1,000 pages on counseling and theology from the ACBC-approved reading list. Once the learning requirements are complete, applicants will need to pass theological and counselor examinations. Applicants will be evaluated by both a pastor and a colleague. Finally, applicants must complete 50 one-hour sessions of supervised counseling. The supervising counselor will review each case report from those sessions before issuing their final recommendation.

Do note that the ACBC will not certify any applicant who attends a church with a female pastor.

Certified Grief Counselor (CGC)

The American Academy of Grief Counseling (AAGC), which is housed within the American Institute of Health Care Professionals (AIHCP), is dedicated to standardizing and promoting the grief counseling profession. One way they do so is through optional certification as a Certified Grief Counselor (CGC). While this does not meet any state requirements for licensure, it can act as a mark of distinction for a grief counselor who wishes to highlight their specialization.

Applicants need a degree from a program that relates to grief counseling. Once deemed eligible, applicants will need to complete four continuing education courses in grief counseling through the AAGC. Applicants may choose to specialize their certification in one of the following areas: grief recovery; child and adolescent grief counseling; or pet loss grief recovery specialist.

Those who do earn the CGC designation, or any of its specialized variants, will need to recertify every four years through the completion of 50 hours of continuing education.

Certified Career Counselor (CCC)

The National Career Development Association (NCDA) is the recognized leader in the career development profession, providing standards and advocacy to those who empower individuals to achieve their career goals. Their voluntary Certified Career Counselor (CCC) credential is focused on the intersection of counseling and career development.

Applicants need a master’s degree from a CACREP-accredited program; those who attended a master’s program not accredited by CACREP will need to submit their coursework for verification. Applicants also need either 600 hours of clinical experience or 60 hours of continuing education.

Once deemed eligible, applicants will be given four case studies to review, and their responses will be graded in a blind review. Those who pass earn the CCC designation, which needs to be renewed every three years through the completion of 30 continuing education units.

Spiritual Christian Counselor – Certified (SCC-C)

The American Institute of Health Care Professionals (AIHCP) is dedicated to promoting certification, continuing education, and fellowship programs for distinct healthcare professions. Perhaps none are quite as distinct as the AICHP’s optional Spiritual Christian Counselor – Certified (SCC-C) designation.

Eligibility requirements are wide: applicants can be a licensed counselor, licensed psychologist, certified addictions counselor, licensed social worker, or a number of other professions. Those who are eligible must successfully complete an educational program at the AIHCP. Once earned, the SCC-C credential will need to be renewed every four years through the completion of 50 hours of continuing education.

Certified Therapeutic Recreational Specialist (CTRS)

Established in 1981, the National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification (NCTRC) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to professional excellence in recreational therapy. Professional recognition through the optional Certified Therapeutic Recreational Specialist (CTRS) designation is available to individuals who meet the NCTRC’s established standards around education, experience, and continuing education.

Specialization areas are available in: adaptive sports and recreation; behavioral health; community inclusion services; developmental disabilities; geriatrics; pediatrics; and physical medicine/rehabilitation.

Applicants will need a bachelor’s degree or higher with a concentration in recreational therapy, along with a 560-hour internship supervised by a CTRS. Alternate equivalency paths are available through verifiable coursework and work experience. Once deemed eligible, applicants will need to pass a three-hour, 150-question NCTRC exam. Those who earn the CTRS designation will need to recertify every five years through the completion of at least 50 hours of continuing education.

National Certified Peer Specialist (NCPS)

Mental Health America (MHA) is the nation’s leading community-based nonprofit for addressing the needs of those living with mental illness, and promoting the overall mental health of Americans. They offer voluntary, examination-based certification as a National Certified Peer Specialist (NCPS). While the NCPS designation is not a replacement for state certifications, it can help a peer support specialist distinguish themselves as competent and committed to the profession.

Applicants will need to hold current state certification with a minimum of 40 hours of training (or have completed an MHA-approved training. They’ll also need a minimum of 3,000 hours of supervised work providing direct peer support, and two letters of recommendation. Once deemed eligible, applicants must pass a three-hour, 125-question examination to earn the NCPS credential. Those who do earn it will need to recertify every two years by completing 20 hours of continuing education.

Certified Lactation Counselor

The Academy of Lactation Policy and Practice (ALPP) is a nonprofit organization with the mission of promoting evidence-based knowledge and clinical competencies in lactation professionals. Their optional Certified Lactation Counselor (CLC) credential is the premier national certification in lactation management in the United States.

Applicants must be a graduate of a post-secondary lactation consultant program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP). In lieu of this requirement, applicants may complete 52 hours of verified training based on WHO/UNICEF’s specialized breastfeeding coursework. Once deemed eligible, applicants must pass the CLC exam, which includes both a didactic and a practical component. Those who earn the CLC designation will need to recertify every three years by completing 18 hours of continuing education.

Matt Zbrog

Matt Zbrog

Writer

Matt Zbrog is a writer and researcher from Southern California, and he believes a strong society demands a stronger mental health system. Since early 2018, he’s written extensively about emerging topics in counseling, research, and healthcare education. Drawing upon interviews with hospital CEOs, healthcare professionals, professors, and advocacy groups, his writing and research are focused on learning from those who know the subject best.